Seventies' style ultraviolent action-cinema returns to the screen with "Dredd 3D." With direction by Pete Travis, a screenplay by novelist Alex Garland, and cinematography by Dogme 95 innovator Anthony Dod Mantle, "Dredd" brings with him more than the usual amount of cinematic pedigree for a comic book adaptation. But then, this is more "Dirty Harry" than it is "The Avengers." Ultra-violent with nary a hint of an apology for it, Dredd draws blood, but unfortunately, also lacks feeling - both the character and the film.
Don't get me wrong: there's a lot to like about this all-out sensory experience. The plot is brilliant in its simplicity: a prostitute-turned-drug lord named Ma-Ma (are you sold already?) is operating from the top floor of one of the 200 story buildings that houses humanity in a post-apocalyptic future, and Dredd (Karl Urban), along with a new recruit/resident psychic played by Olivia Thirlby, must battle their way up the floors to get her. Any similarities to "The Raid" (and they are numerous) are coincidental, I presume.
But, for a moment, forget the fighting. The film is perhaps most notable for featuring some of the best use of 3-D since the gimmick’s revival. Taking a cue not from trash like "Avatar" but rather from cult-cool items like "Enter the Void," director Travis imbues the movie with an abundance of POV shots, neon lights, and unexplained flashes. It’s overtly surreal, and the 3-D accentuates it perfectly; whether it’s bringing the ubiquitous clouds of smoke to the foreground of the frame, allowing the walls to "breathe," or tripping you out by speeding the surroundings past you in a first-person position.
A druggy atmosphere, brutal violence, a decidedly genre-movie tone, "Dredd" should’ve been catnip to my sensibilities. So why doesn’t it work as well as it should have? I have to say, the sheer over-the-top nature of the film is its own undoing. The sensory attacks described above are singular, extraordinary; but the gushing blood and continuous violence gets to be too much. Everything’s so amped up that the individual moments fail to register.
The fact is, it desensitizes you. For a great filmmaker, violence can be the best tool in the shed: to startle an audience, to change a character, it can be used for basically any purpose. Normally I’m a total wimp - I love violent movies, but they make me squirm like a child (perhaps I love them because they make me squirm - I saw "Drive" five times last year, and the elevator scene had me twisting and turning every time.) But "Dredd" failed to have that impact on me; the brutality is totally overdone. After all, when characters have been skinned alive in the opening twenty minutes, how can you up the ante? There’s nowhere to go but down.
Luckily, the atmospheric elements trump the bloodhound elements; the team of Thirlby (whose psychic powers allow the filmmakers another excuse to shake the boundaries of the 3-D plane) and Urban making a fun good cop/bad cop pair. He does his best Clint Eastwood imitation, having clearly studied the emotionless performances from the spaghetti western days, and Thirlby is impressive at looking totally out of her league (I won’t go so far as to suggest that it’s because she’s out of her league on this set as well.) And of course, the choice to leave Dredd’s mask on encapsulates how this film gets everything right that the previous adaptation (a mid-90s groaner starring Sly Stallone) got wrong.
Still, this is about sating audience bloodlust first, and being a quality movie second. Perhaps the filmmakers felt the blood as necessary as the hallucinatory elements, but I disagree. In doing that they focus more on the blood being spilled than on the people spilling it. And blood alone can’t hold my interest for 90 minutes.